The Fide Candidates Tournament in Madrid is turning into an old boys tribute act, as Ian Nepomniachtchi and Fabiano Caruana, the 2021 and 2018 title challengers, are both turning in vintage performances to break away from the pack, with just a half-point difference between the frontrunners in what’s effectively shaping up now into a two-horse race to decide Magnus Carlsen’s next title challenger.
Top seed Ding Liren got off to a bad start after he was sensationally blown away by Nepomniachtchi – but now another pre-tournament favourite, elite-newcomer Alireza Firouzja has been on the receiving end of a brace of sore loses to Nepomniachtchi and Caruana in rounds four and six respectively, and the newly-turned 19-year-old didn’t have have much birthday-week celebrations to cheer about.
And tournament dark horse, Hikaru Nakamura almost blew the Candidates race wide-open in round four when he had Nepomniachtchi on the ropes, but the American speed maven and streaming influencer failed to find the winning continuation, and soon had to offer up the bail out by allowing a repetition draw.
That salvaged draw, with three wins, now sees a rejuvenated Nepomniachtchi establish a slender half point lead over rival Caruana going into Friday’s second rest day; and all-eyes are now on Monday when the two previous Candidates victors go head-to-head in the ninth round in what could decide the final outcome of the tournament.
All of which leaves Carlsen, 31, with a dilemma. Going into the Madrid Candidates, the Norwegian speculated that he might have already played his last world championship match if the challenger – such as Nepomniachtchi also 31, and Caruana, 29 – came from his own generation, but could be persuaded to defend his title if it were Ding or newer-generation star Firouzja – but both are effectively now out of the race as they languish at the foot of the table.
While it might be an easy geopolitical excuse for Carlsen to decline a rematch with the Russian – whom he humbled last year in Dubai – due to the Ukraine invasion, many are speculating that the lure of a mega-million match against Caruana in St Louis might well be too tempting a prospect for the No.1 to turn down. Time will soon tell – but my best guess is that money doesn’t influence Carlsen’s decision-making anymore, and if either of his previous two challengers emerge as the victors, he’ll most likely decline and the ball will be back in Fide’s court to arrange an undercard world title match between the top two finishers in Madrid.
1. I. Nepomniachtchi (Fide) 4½/6; 2. F. Caruana (USA) 4; 3-4. H. Nakamura (USA), R. Rapport (Hungary) 3; 5-7. Ding Liren (China), T. Radjabov (Azerbaijan), JK Duda (Poland) 2½; 8. A. Firouzja (France) 2.
Photo: Caruana is in the hunt for a second title crack | © Stev Bonhage/2022 Fide World Candidates
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Hikaru Nakamura
FIDE Candidates Tournament, (1)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 The notorious tough Berlin Defence that Kramnik dramatically rehabilitated, as he so bamboozled Garry Kasparov with it to take his title in London in 2000. 4.d3 Very popular now, as it avoids the tabyia of 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 and the so-called ‘Berlin Wall’ endgame. 4…Bc5 5.Bxc6 dxc6 6.Nbd2 Be6 7.0-0 Bd6 8.Nb3 Qe7 9.Na5! A slightly annoying little move from Caruana that directly and indirectly targets pawns in Nakamura’s camp that are not so easy to defend: b7, c6 & e5. 9…Rb8 On reflection of what comes in the game, Nakamura might well not regret taking this chance to play 9…0-0-0 and his king safe on the queenside. 10.Bg5 h6 11.Bh4 g5 12.Bg3 Nd7 13.d4 f6 The position is not a quite so simple as it looks. If 13…Bb4 14.Nb3 Bc4 there’s 15.a3!? confusing matters, leading to 15…Bxf1 16.axb4 Bc4 17.Nbd2 Be6 18.c3 Bg4 (If 18…exd4 19.Nxd4 BLack has problems with loose pawns on a7 and c7.) 19.Rxa7 0-0 20.Qb1! and there’s too many holes/weaknesses in Black’s position that could lead to White taking the advantage in the long-term. 14.Qd3 h5 15.dxe5 Nxe5 16.Bxe5 fxe5 17.Nc4 This is just one of those rare positions where the knights are dominating the bishops – and all because of the e5-pawn weakness. But a slightly more nuanced approach was 17.Qc3!? with the added threat of Nxb7! and Qxc6+, forcing 17…0-0 18.Nxe5 Qg7! 19.Nd3 Qxc3 20.bxc3 c5 but I guess with the queens off, having the bishop-pair and White’s queenside pawns shattered, Nakamura would easily have held the draw in the endgame. 17…Rd8 18.Nxd6+ cxd6 19.Qe3! If it wasn’t for the pawn weaknesses that ends up loosening his position more than he’d like to, Nakamura would have able to hold this – but kudos to Caruana who, with very little, squeezes the most out of the position to leave his opponent’s king exposed to the elements. 19…g4 20.Nd2 a6 21.b3 0-0 22.f3! Further loosening up Black’s kingside. 22…Qg7 23.fxg4 hxg4 24.Rad1 d5 Nakamura can’t just sit back and let Caruana take control – he has to make his fellow countryman-rival work to seize a winning advantage. 25.exd5 cxd5 26.Rde1 e4 27.Rxf8+ Rxf8 Nakamura hopes that with the trade of pieces he might well be able to liquidate down to a Q v minor piece ending where even losing a pawn might well still lead to a draw. 28.c4! Breaking down Black’s central pawn unit – and with it, suddenly Nakamura faces a tough endgame defence. 28…Re8 The point is that 28…dxc4? 29.Qxe4! Bf7 30.Nxc4 White has an extra pawn and a big positional advantage. 29.cxd5 Bxd5 30.Nf1! The key move to Caruana winning this impressive squeeze, as ultimately the knight coming to e3 controls everything and sets up the attack on Nakamura’s exposed king. 30…Qe5 31.Qh6 Qg7 32.Qd6 Bc6 33.Ne3 g3! The only way to try and hang on – Nakamura isn’t going to go down without a fight! 34.hxg3 Qe5 The online massed hordes were quickly calling this out as a blunder from Nakamura, based on an engine “blip”, and that he’d “missed” 34…Qc3! This is only true if White plays 35.Qd1 and Black does have excellent saving chances – but fortunately/unfortunately, White has instead 35.Qg6+ Qg7 36.Qd6 that just transposes to what was played in the game! So no, Nakamura didn’t miss anything! 35.Qg6+ Qg7 36.Qd6 Qe5 37.Qh6 Qxg3 The doubled g-pawn is fairly meaningless here for White – to try to save this position, Nakamura should have tried 37…Rf8!? 38.Qg6+ Qg7 The trade of queens here will easily see Black hold the draw in the ensuing endgame. 39.Qe6+ Qf7 40.Qg4+ Qg7 41.Qh4 Qd4! and this is the sort of tricky position I could believe Nakamura would be able to save! To make progress, White will have to try pushing the g-pawn with 42.g4 Rf7 43.Qh6 Rh7 44.Qf4 Rf7 45.Qb8+ Kg7 and with Black’s pieces superbly lined-up, I just can’t see how White is ever going to win this as he’s all tied down. 38.Rf1 Qg7 39.Qh4 Qh7? Nakamura’s losing move. Our Silicon Overlords point out that 39…Bd7! 40.Rd1 (Also 40.Rf6 Rc8! looks “holdable” for Black.) 40…Re7 and Black has perfectly re-arranged his “furniture” to cover all the holes. 40.Qg3+ Both players were a little rushed reaching the time-control – but in getting there, Caruana missed the stronger 40.Qf4! and apparently there’s no defence to either Nf5, Ng4 or (if …Bd7) Nd5 and Nf6+ is looming large. 40…Qg7 41.Qh4 Bd7 42.Rd1 Be6 43.Nd5! [see diagram] This exposes all the cavernous holes around Nakamura’s king – he would instead have gladly given up the pawn with 43.Qxe4?! Qg5 44.Rd5! Bxd5 45.Qxe8+ Kg7 46.Qd7+ Bf7 47.Qd4+ Qf6 48.Nf5+ Kg6 49.Qg4+ Qg5 50.Nh4+ Kf6 51.Qf3+ Kg7 and Black has excellent chances of holding the draw here, especially with a queen perpetual hanging in the air. 43…Rf8 44.Qxe4 Qh6 The alternative was 44…Qg4 45.Qe1 Bf5 46.Ne7+ Kf7 47.Nxf5 Qxf5 48.Qh4! Qc5+ 49.Rd4 where eventually Black’s king wandering around dazed and confused in no-man’s land will get tangled in the wire. 45.Re1 Rd8 46.Ne7+ Kf7 47.Nf5 Qf6 The (full) point is that 47…Bxf5 48.Qe7+ Kg6 49.Qxd8 and not only has Black lost material, but his king is still exposed to a mating attack. 48.Rf1 Bd5 49.Nh6+! Kg7 50.Qg4+ 1-0 And Nakamura resigns in view of 50…Qg6 51.Nf5+ Kf7 (If 51…Kh7 52.Qh4+ Kg8 53.Qxd8+ easily wins) 52.Nh4+ etc.